The Sight-Bite For Night Crappies
September 21, 2011
Night can be the great equalizer — walleyes, stripers, catfish, brown trout, muskies that turn tough by day often gorge at night. But this is a brisk November evening and crappies are supposed to be deep, aren't they? Shattering the silence in our boat, my friend flips the spotlight's ON switch and one of the great hide-and-seek jobs in fishing is revealed.
Skip back about 10 years and I'm standing on the front deck of an electrofishing vessel, helping sample walleye populations for a state fishery department. Twin electrodes pass electric currents into the shallow waters near shore, temporarily stunning any fish in our path. When fish come to the surface, two of us jockey for position with long-handled dipnets.
That first late October night I'm amazed at the abundance of big crappies that shimmer to the surface, wide bodies contorted into forced muscular curls. Even in areas with classic walleye habitat — hard, clean bottom with mixed gravel and sand — 10- to 14-inch (sometimes bigger) crappies often outnumbered the walleyes 5 to 1.
The biologists who have done this before don't seem surprised. With us that night is Dr. Dan Isermann, a fishery scientist who today is Assistant Professor of Water Resources & Fisheries at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Isermann, also a longtime In-Fisherman contributor, has long studied crappie behavior, investigating their habits on natural lakes in Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin, as well as reservoirs in South Dakota and Tennessee. Much of his population sampling is done at night, and he has found that crappies use super shallow water after dark in fall in much greater number than almost anyone thought.
"Many times," Isermann says, "I've looked down into the water around the boat and spotted entire swarms of crappies, literally following us around the shallows." Electrofishing boats, by necessity, are equipped with powerful spotlights, mounted well above the work area. That lights draw crappies is no mystery, of course. But the fact that crappies are present in shallow water in such large numbers after turnover remains a fascinating and largely unknown fact.
In several lakes I fish, post-turnover crappies travel in schools in 25- to 55-foot basin areas. During the day, they're unmistakable on sonar, showing as clusters of solid objects — often 5 or more feet thick — suspended anywhere from 1 to 15 feet above the bottom. Sometimes, they rest belly down on the soft substrate of these lake zones. Crappies in these areas are easy to catch with small jigs, as well as small spoons or Puppet Minnows and Jigging Rapalas. The fish aren't nearly so easy to release as they are to catch. Crappies are deepwater wimps and most fish extracted from deeper water aren't capable of quickly equalizing pressure in their swim bladders.
At night everything changes. Not all crappies using basins by day move up onto 1- to 3-foot shorelines at night, but some of the larger specimens do. And they're highly catchable and entirely releasable.
Isermann believes that the movements are gradual, with the fish shifting from deep basins to adjacent deep submersed vegetation edges in confined open water as sunlight fades during the late afternoon. The fish hover just outside the drop-off until twilight. At dark, crappies appear on shallow, gradually tapering shorelines. Many of the fish hold no more than a few feet off the bank.
Fishery studies have never precisely documented these day-to-night shifts. Isermann's theories surely make sense, though, considering that fall crappies are rarely caught or seen in water shallower than 15 feet during the day on northern natural lakes and reservoirs.
"In almost every lake where we've sampled crappies at night, major stands of hardstem bulrush have been the dominant habitat," Isermann says. "Bulrush grows best on firm substrate in areas with good water movement, so often it's sprouting up all across vast shallow areas open to main-lake wind-caused current, or near neck-down areas between basins. Both of these zones are heavily used by crappies at night."
Isermann's study lakes all contained bulrush, but other lakes I've fished have been void of them. In my fishing, crappies appear more tied to particular lake regions than specific cover. Some of my favorite lakes are deep, moderately fertile, and generally not known for producing crappies. The available fish can be absolute whoppers and their predictable night movements make them easy to catch. On classic crappie water the pattern often is a big numbers game. Though the fish aren't so large as in those waters, two anglers can catch 100 fish during the average 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. night shift.
The best areas to find shallow crappies on lakes without rushes are shorelines near openings between basins (neck-down areas) or spacious ultra-shallow sand and gravel points. In all cases, deep water should be nearby. It's some of the most atypical crappie habitat I've ever fished, and some of the best big-fish shorelines are nowhere near a shallow bay, or classic crappie cover. Rather, they're shallow, hard-bottom shorelines that lie close to some of the most expansive deep open zones in the lake, and they're usually totally exposed to wind and waves that push across the open water. Some of my best spots are on north and east shores, although this may be coincidence. Again, wind current can really pound these spots, and crappies almost always vacate turbulent waters, so I usually have a backup spot or two on the opposite side of the lake.
These crappies show a tendency to hug tight to shorelines; so the only zone to worry about is the water between the bank and the first inside edge of shallow vegetation, which is often coontail or northern milfoil. We've spent a lot of time scanning shallow offshore flats with spotlights, but time and again the only zone that holds numbers of crappies is the narrow sand and gravel corridor between shore and the inside weedline. One concentration zone is a narrow 1- to 2-foot trench that often runs up and down the shoreline, separating the inside vegetation line from the clear sand-gravel flat.
"It's not totally clear why crappies are so abundant in these ultra-shallow zones," Isermann says. "Perhaps it's simply an unused niche in the environment — a zone to which crappies are perfectly suited."
At least part of the reason for their presence, Isermann believes, relates to late-hatching baitfish that make strong use of the same near-shore zones as night crappies. "In many lakes and reservoirs, we often see a significant late sunfish spawn," he says. "A second or third bluegill spawn can occur as late as two months after the first push. These late-hatched sunfish finally reach a size that interests crappies and other fish by early to mid fall — often by mid October. Crappies feed heavily on young-of-the-year sunfish, much more so than most anglers realize. This can occur both in northern natural lakes and in southern reservoirs."
Isermann admits that little research has focused on fall crappie diets, but he reports seeing baby bluegills frequently spit up by shocked crappies recovering in holding tanks. The physical size of their fall forage is occasionally surprising also, with larger crappies burping up 3- to 4-inch sunfish and perch.
While spotlighting, I have also observed a variety of minnow species, including Johnny darters, and even small bullheads in these sandy near-shore zones. I also see loads of 3- to 5-inch yellow perch, as well as an abundance of tiny sunfish, all of them hovering near bottom, seemingly disoriented by darkness. Given their aggression level, it's unlikely that crappies in these areas exhibit forage-specific feeding, though the baby sunfish connection is the perhaps the most important in terms of abundance.
One of the better lures at night has in recent times been a Northland Tackle Scud Bug in a #8 size — a small soft crustacean imitation — suspended beneath a lighted slipfloat. It's unlikely that invertebrates figure prominently into this shallow pattern, even though zooplankton can be of primary importance for crappies using deeper basins during the day.
A final connection is the fall frog migration that occurs on certain lakes as leopard frogs travel between marsh areas and adjacent lakes where they winter. A friend who fishes this bite with me has taken some very large crappies by fly-casting with popping bugs just off the bank. He believes some of the crappies are zeroing on frogs.
Sighting at Night
As a lad, I was spellbound by the diametrical differences in a body of water daytime versus night. A high-beam handheld spotlight was my spyglass into a dark, ethereal aquatic world. It's the same reason I still burn fishing time scanning with an underwater camera today. Still, a handheld spot is the best way to locate crappies at night. It's also a fun way to simply learn about a lake's biology.
Crappies usually aren't alarmed by lights, although they are highly sensitive to the sounds of an electric trolling motor. The plan for a companion and myself on most nights is for one of us to sit in the bow, scanning with a Brinkman Q-Beam, a rechargeable 2-million candlepower spot that runs about one hour per charge. Plug into an accessory outlet for longer-term use. The other angler runs the main engine or a smaller 4-stroke kicker motor, idling along shore as slowly as possible. While a bow mounted trolling motor often spooks crappies, a large gas engine operated at idle speed usually doesn't. So long as the water has at least a few feet of visibility, shining crappies works well. It's the best way to confirm fish presence and also makes targeting individual large fish possible.
In lakes and reservoirs with large populations, some of the better shorelines hold over 100 fish in a single long stretch. On the lakes I fish most, it's more usual to spot one large fish here and there. If the crappies are big — and it takes a few outings to begin to effectively guess fish size — we may shut down the lights and drop a small anchor after seeing as few as two fish in an area.
The fishing approach is a modified run-and-gun affair. A percentage strategy puts the boat right at the mouth of a neck-down area or narrows between two deeper basins. We begin scanning there, moving toward the calmer of two shorelines, or the one that's historically held fish. It can get pretty brisk out there on a cold, clear November eve, so calm nights are welcome. Besides, spotting crappies is nearly impossible when the surface is broken by wind — and crappies avoid turbulent shorelines in any case.
Gradually, we move along, intent on the water 10 feet or more in front of the bow. If the spotter calls out "fish!" followed by "another fish, and another one there," it's time to shut down and slip a small anchor overboard. I use a 10-pound navy anchor, which is more than enough to hold an 18-foot boat in calm shallow waters.
At this point, we rig lines and get organized, light provided by Petzl Tikka LED hat-lamps. We're careful to minimize sounds inside the boat. Spotlights shone briefly on these fish don't spook them, but audible thumps or grinding sounds inside the boat make them scoot every time.
It's often possible to freeze a spotlight on a crappie, pitch a jig on its nose and still get the fish to aggressively eat. Rarely we do this, though, because you do risk spooking the fish. It's worth noting that the fish usually are aggressive. Often, within seconds of casting, two anglers are already hooked up on fish.
Last fall, Northland Fishing Tackle sent me several prototype Live-Forage Minnow Jigs. These newly introduced lures have flat-sided "slab" profiles, stamped with exact replica shapes and digitally imprinted forage fish patterns. The 1/16-ounce Bluegill model is amazingly lifelike. Tipped with a tiny reverse-rigged crappie minnow or spottail shiner it was an almost magical combination. I also experimented with the Glow Perch pattern, but found the Bluegill slightly better, despite the phosphorescence of the perch.
This little jig matches the size and profile of the baby sunfish that crappies find so appetizing. Rather than casting and retrieving this jig, we fish it below a lighted Blue Fox Firefly float (BFF1). Cast it close to where you spot a fish and let it set. Give the float a few slight dabbles, stem dancing from side to side. This subtle move makes the Minnow Jig wobble, flash, and then flutter on the pause. If a crappie is close it usually inhales the jig and submerges the float within two minutes of a cast.
We also fish with plain ballhead jigs in a glow finish, tipped with a small minnow and rigged beneath a lighted float. This works well but last year the Minnow Jig triggered most of our largest crappies, including many 15- to nearly 17-inch fish.
Another fun option is a 2-inch shiner minnow, hooked through both nostrils, and freelined on a #8 Eagle Claw or Daiichi octopus hook. I add a float for casting weight and added bite detection, but strikes often are heard with a distinct pop, as the minnow swirls on the surface. In denser crappie schools, we've chummed with live minnows, too — a move that can whip a pod of fish into a feeding frenzy, but is likely illegal most places today.
Work each anchor position for no more than about 20 minutes. Often, if we've spotted three fish in an area, we quickly catch all three, and sometimes attract and catch additional crappies that may move to the area to investigate the activity. Or they're just fish we didn't spot to begin with. Usually, when five minutes pass without a bite, we flip the light on, check for any remaining fish, and then pull the anchor and continue to breeze down the shoreline.
Some nights, one particular stretch hosts dozens of fish, filling a several hour trip with action. Other outings, fish are sparse and we're forced to run to check different shorelines.
On late October and November eves when foul Nor'westers whip across black chilly waters, those silver fish are out there patrolling the cool dark shallows, flanks flashing like miniature mirrors in the moonlight.
Cory Schmidt is an In-Fisherman Field Editor who also appears with In'‘Fisherman staff members on Ice Fishing Guide TV.